Sunday, 8 November 2009

36. Into the West

Hola amigos!

The last couple of days in Paraguay were spent being hosted by Brian, a US Peace Corps volunteer, in the southeastern city of Pilar. An old colonial town, Pilar lies isolated on the western bank of the River Paraguay, facing Argentina across the muddy flow. I had been in touch with Brian through in an attempt to find out whether there was a border control across the River Paraguay at this point and when he confirmed that there was and then offered me a place to stay, I was on my way. Pilar is not a big place. The kid who chatted with me while I ate yesterday's dinner from a plastic bag knew who Brian was and where he lived and I soon had a four-foot high guide leading me through the sandy streets. When cars came down the street the 10-year old would admonish me for not staying close enough to the footpath. He was most careful to point out all of the potholes and select the best line through some of the flooded water. How I got this far without that kid I will never know.

Little Paraguayan dudes

After a couple of fun days hanging out with Brian and his friends, and seeing some of the work that Brian has been engaged in raising awareness about environmental issues, particularly waste, in the city, it was time to move on. The mountains of the west were calling me off the flatlands and L'Inferno Verde (or the 'green hell') of the Argentinian Gran Chaco still lay between me and the hills.

Fancy a swim?

The Gran Chaco is a sparsely populated, hot and semi-arid lowland that stretches through eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and parts of southern Brazil. In fact, the landscape is largely thorn and scrubland that was reminiscent of large parts of southern Africa. Options for crossing northern Argentina, unless you like sand, are reduced to two parallel tarred highways, rutas 16 and 81. I chose the former, which follows the almost defunct railway line from Resistencia to Salta, an unbending strip of asphalt for approximately 500 kilometres before it hits the hills in Salta province. Fortunately the watering holes that were constructed at 25 kilometre intervals to serve the steam engines that once plied the route, are now little villages where water, food, and most importantly, ice, are available. For little did I realise that I was setting off into a heatwave that had hit northern Argentina and for several days temperatures of 43 degrees Celcius (107F) were recorded on my thermometer. In the shade. The northwind brings heat and the southwind brings cool, and every morning I would climb out of the tent and cringe as the northwind picked up after an evening's respite, like a hairdryer on a dimmer switch. The friendliness of the Argentinian's never wavered though and gifts of ice, beer, and cakes were received on a daily basis. The last rarely appear in those sports nutrition books, but for morale alone, they may be considered indispensable.

Seven days after leaving Paraguay, hills were spotted in the distance. It could have been a mirage, like those sixteen-wheeler cattle trucks that kept turning into Mr.Whippy vans. But no, they were still there the following morning and to top it off, the wind was now coming from the south, perhaps a whole 20 degrees cooler. The octogenarian who cleaned the municipal sports grounds in Gonzales, where I had pitched the tent, stood up and cried "isn't it beautiful". With dust-riddled eyes from the evening's gales, I too stood in tears and smiled, nodding in agreement.

Amphibious mode

Before arriving in the provincial capital of Salta, however, I decided to make a detour to the El Rey national park. The park lies on the transition zone between the eastern lowlands and the Andean highlands and although a relatively small park, has a very high level of biodiversity as a result of its warm, humid climate. The road into the park, however, involved 50 kilometres of rough track and halfway in the mild steel bolts that had held the front rack on since South Africa were shorn off again. Cable ties to the rescue and onwards we proceeded, arriving at the park entrance at sunset. Ranger Angel, was manning the entrance and in no time at all he had offered me a spare bed in his log house amidst his books on Che and the military dictatorship in Argentina. Angel's father had been a ranger at El Rey for 33 years and so this was home as well as work for him, although he still hoped that his sons would not follow him into the National Park service. Yet despite his apparent dissatisfaction with the powers that be, a more knowledgable and enthusiastic guide to the park's flora and fauna could not be found.

Ranger Angel

I spent the following day exploring the park on some of the trails. Although assured by the rangers that I could bike most of the paths, I think they may have been watching too many extreme mountain biking shows and I eventually abandoned Rocinante against a liana-covered tree and proceeded on foot. I spotted lots of raptors, a term that a professional birdwatching friend of mine assures me makes even the most illiterate avian watcher sound knowledgeable. Unfortunately no toucans were spotted though, despite their apparent abundance in the park. In addition to the larger fauna, sandflies and ticks abounded. I am still finding stragglers from the latter group, although I am assured that the ticks in these parts don't carry diseases like those in Europe. As for the sandflies, by the time I realised that trousers and long-sleeved shirt would be a good idea I had been gorged upon by the wee feckers and the legs began to swell overnight, followed by a desire to scratch the bites that would have needed hypnosis to stop me. Birds found, I broke camp and fled for the tarred road and Salta.

The lesser spotted ...

Yesterday morning in central Salta, pedaling through the cool rain, I found a dimly-lit workshop staffed by a friendly-faced old man who will go to work on rethreading the braze-on on my fork tomorrow and getting the rack bolted back on. This following several disastrous attempts by me and various mechanics along the road to sort the problem out. There are no sandflies in the city though, so he can take his time. And the ice cream is fantastic.

Salta, Argentina
Trip distance: 25,551 km

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